S.S. Walnut

A voyage to Freedom - 1948

1951 +



Note:  Newspaper articles from various sources appeared both shortly after the Walnut voyage and were also written many years later.  
Many news articles contain factual inaccuracies, but are presented  herein  as published and written by their authors.

"Wanted:  survivors of a nightmare voyage to freedom"
The Canadian Star Weekly
Author:  Walter Kanitz [spelling not clearly visible] - Dated sometime in 1968 ?

In the early morning mist of Dec. 13, 1948, the pilot of a Canadian coast guard plane spotted a small vessel wallowing helplessly in rough seas, 200 miles off Nova Scotia.  Unable to make radio contact, he signaled Halifax.  A few hours later a cutter came alongside the 600-ton Walnut; a former British minesweeper.  An officer went aboard and discovered a waking nightmare.  He found 364 passengers -- men, women and children -- crammed into the hold of a ship that had been built originally for a crew of 14.  The human sardine can stank abominably.  People were stretched out on bunks, on the floor, everywhere.  They seemed dead.

The officer climbed back on deck and took a deep gulp of fresh air.  "Dead?" he asked the captain. "No," the captain told him, "not dead -- almost."

A tugboat towed the Walnut into Halifax.  Ambulances took the passengers and crews to various hospitals.  The immigration people hustled to look after the unexpected shipload of new Canadians.

Valdim Tuklerim, today a prosperous real estate operator in Hamilton, Ont. who  has changed his name to Val Tukler, confirms what the captain said.  He was one of the crew of the Walnut.  "A few days longer," he says, "and we would have been dead.  All of us."  Latvian-born, Val was one of the anxious and miserable group of Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian refugees who had left the Swedish port of Göteborg on November 11 to sail for "the free, democratic land of Canada."  It was the period of the worst mass deportations to Siberia that the population of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania  had experienced in the succession of foreign occupations since 1939, in which Russia had alternated with Germany.  To escape this fate thousands had fled to Sweden, where these 364 had banded together to buy the old British mine sweeper from a scrap yard.  They saw it as their only hope for freedom, as there were constant rumors that the Russians might invade Sweden.

Twenty years later, Val Tukler's emotions still run high when he recalls their fantastic escape.  Middle-aged now, father of two, he was lean and hungry and in his late 20's when he helped organize the voyage.  From among Sweden's masses of Baltic refugees they recruited 364 and collected $100,000 to buy and outfit the ship.  Most of them handed over all the money they had.

When the Walnut left Göteborg, a final deception was necessary.  There had been no money to buy radio equipment, without which Swedish authorities would not let it sail.  So Captain August Linde, an Estonian refugee, borrowed the equipment from another ship and once outside Swedish territorial waters returned it to the owner who had escorted them.  "I'll find my way to Canada blindfolded," said the captain.  And he did.

Caption right:  Twenty years ago next week, 364 Baltic refugees debarked from the Walnut at Halifax.  They had crossed the Atlantic without heat, food or radio equipment.


A view of the ship Walnut.

November and December are notoriously bad in the North Atlantic and after a week of 50-foot waves everyone was miserably sick.  Living conditions were incredible.  There was only three feet of space per couple on each bunk and the bunks were stacked three layers high in a hold 7 feet high.  Salt water had spoiled the food.  The air stank.  Clothing was permanently soaked.  Sanitary facilities were almost nonexistent.

But the Walnut plowed on and each day Canada came nearer.  The sea poured in with every wave.  Then the pumps, working furiously around the clock, broke down. Everyone who could, bailed by hand, nonstop.  Finally after three weeks a giant wave swept away all the coal remaining in open bins on deck.  Shortly afterwards the engine conked out.  For six days and nights the Walnut drifted in the waves, luckily pushed westward by the winds.  It was on the morning of the seventh day that the plane spotted the ship -- the 32nd day of the voyage.

As the 20th anniversary of their arrival in Canada approaches, Val Tukler has lost track of almost all his companions in misery on the Atlantic crossing.  As far as he knows most of them are safe, sound and prosperous scattered across Canada and the United States.  Any who wish to share a reunion-by-mail can write to..... [removed by webmaster - Canadian Star Weekly ceased publication in 1973.]


"Estonian refugees mark voyage
Flight to freedom 50 years ago"

The Toronto Star - Monday, October 19, 1998 - by Peter Edwards, Staff Reporter
Copyright © Toronto Star - Posted with permission from Torstar Syndication Services.

Nelly Lind's strongest memories of her flight to freedom in Canada aren't about fear.

And they aren't about the huge Atlantic Ocean waves that washed over the deck of the tiny ship, the Walnut, forcing passengers to cling to the railings or be washed overboard.

Lind's strongest memories are of sauerkraut soup.

"There were lots of little worms in it," she says, cringing at the memory 50 years later.  "That was something I'll remember always."

The passengers of the Walnut, a former Royal Navy minesweeper, held a reunion this weekend at St. Peter's Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church on Mount Pleasant Rd. near Eglinton Ave. E.

But the wormy memories didn't hinder the 78-year old woman's appetite during Saturday's festivities, as she enjoyed smoked turkey and kringel, a sweet bread, along with more than a hundred other Walnut passengers and their families.

For Hilya Kuutan, aboard the Walnut as a 12-year-old, her strongest memory is of the pure excitement.  "It was an adventure for us.  As a child, you were not scared."

The 347 passengers of The Walnut, who braved a month-long voyage to Canada, started their long journey when they fled Estonia for Sweden to escape the Red Army during World War II.

When the war ended, the Soviet government demanded that Sweden return its citizens.  In 1948, the refugees watched in horror as fellow Estonians were dragged crying into boats and back to the Soviet Union.

Rather than face the same fate, they decided to flee to Canada.

The journey wasn't easy for most of the passengers.

"I didn't eat for a month, I was so sick," said Lind, who crossed the Atlantic with her husband Tőnis and her sons Tony and Tiit Eric.

The passengers were told before  the voyage that they probably wouldn't be allowed into Canada, but they gambled and came anyway.  The risk paid off.  Parliament created a special exemption to allow them to land on Canadian soil.

"We were really among the first board people," Kuutan said.  "It was a refugee boat.  We came here illegally.  They just didn't call it that."


Harald and Helmi Sarg.

Although Harald Sarg, 93, and his bride of 49 years Helmi, 78, won't call the Walnut a love boat, they did meet on board and were engaged within three weeks of their arrival in the Toronto area.  "He figured I was a good-hearted person," Helmi said with a smile.

Sarg made his living as a construction worker while his wife worked in the office at Sears.  Like the rest of the Walnut's passengers, they are proud they were able to support themselves without government aid.



Photo caption:  Harald Sarg, 93, and his wife Helmi, 78, enjoy the 50th anniversary reunion of passengers who made their way to Canada aboard the Walnut, where the pair met.



Ene Pomerants Johnson remembers lots of crying, but not much else of the voyage.  She was just 3.  "I was very ill and I didn't eat at all," she recalled.  "My mother even said (jokingly) they were going to throw me overboard."  Like most of the passengers, her family settled in Ajax.

There are about 10,000 people of Estonian heritage in southern Ontario, possibly the largest Estonian community outside Eastern Europe.

It was worth the ocean waves and the worms in the soup to get here, Kuutan said.  "You're part of Canada.  There are no regrets."


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